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4 July 2016

As Jeremy Corbyn calls the Labour rebels’ bluff, what’s their next move?

There is no agreement on whether the leader would make the ballot or whether Angela Eagle or Owen Smith would be the challenger. 

By George Eaton

Jeremy Corbyn MP on Twitter

Ever since the rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn began, some have suggested that the man himself wants out. “JC was five minutes away from resigning. But Seumas [Milne] torpedoed the discussions he was having with Tom [Watson],” a senior source told me last week. The Labour leader has been likened by insiders to a hostage being held in place by the triumvirate of John McDonnell (his shadow chancellor), Milne (his strategy and communications director) and Karie Murphy (director of the leader’s office). “They literally won’t let anyone near him,” I was told. 

But others have long maintained that Corbyn has no desire to resign. They speak of the “obligation” he feels to those who elected him less than a year ago.  “Jeremy isn’t going to go. He’s never wanted to,” a senior ally told me this morning. Rebels hoped that Corbyn would reflect over the weekend, after spending time with his family (who are said to want him to stand down), and conclude that he could not continue. But nearly a week after the no confidence vote in him by Labour MPs, the leader has given the clearest signal yet that he will remain..  

In a video posted on his Twitter feed, Corbyn reaffirmed his mandate (“I was very honoured to be elected leader of our party with 60 per cent of the votes”) and declared that he was “carrying on with the responsibility” of leading the party. He demanded that his “colleagues in Parliament” (81 per cent of whom voted against him) “come together now to oppose this Tory government.”

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Angela Eagle’s planned leadership bid has been repeatedly delayed in the hope that Corbyn can be persuaded to depart. Deputy leader Tom Watson, who has ruled out standing, has been leading efforts to broker a deal. But impatient with the absence of progress, Eagle publicly declared her readiness to stand. “I have the support to run and resolve this impasse and I will do so if Jeremy doesn’t take action soon,” the former shadow first secretary of state said. But the continuing delay was immediately mocked by Corbyn’s allies. “The only ‘impasse’ is in Angela’s leadership bid,” said one. “She needs to stop dithering and declare. More chicken than eagle.”

The Labour leader’s supporters are confident that he will be re-elected in any contest and have been buoyed by activist support. Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, has doubled its membership to 12,000 in the last week and received £11,000 per day in donations. “The infrastructure with which we’re starting this campaign is so far ahead of where we were a year ago,” James Schneider, Momentum’s national organiser, told me. “And that was a stand-out campaign.” 

A challenge to Corbyn is regarded by both sides as increasingly inevitable. Senior figures believe that the leader would need to achieve 50 nominations from MPs/MEPs to defend his position, rather than being automatically included on the ballot. But the leader’s office maintain that the law favours them. The dispute will ultimately be resolved by Labour’s National Executive Commiitte. Its pivotal role has been demonstrated by the non-resignation of shadow cabinet member Jon Ashworth (an NEC frontbench representative and an ally of Watson) and by the appointment of Corbyn supporter Jon Trickett to fill Eagle’s place. 

Should the Labour leader make the ballot, there remains no agreement on who his opponent will be. Owen Smith, the former shadow work and pensions secretary, is competing with Eagle to be the “unity candidate”. Smith’s allies contend that as an opponent of the Iraq and Syria interventions (both of which Eagle voted for) he is better placed to win.

No challenge is expected until after Wednesday’s publication of the Chilcot report, a moment that both sides believe Corbyn will use to “rebound”. The Labour leader has refused to rule out calling for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes. With less than a month until the summer recess on 21 July, the rebels’ hope that Chilcot would be Corbyn’s swansong looks increasingly forlorn. “You should never enter a room without a back door,” a Corbyn ally said of the leader’s opponents. “They’ve left themselves with no option but to split the party.”